When in the late 1800s Sierra Leone’s ITA Wallace-Johnson was leading civil society activism in the sub-region, the English language did not have those two words together – civil society. Or at least they did not carry the meaning they do today. So it will probably be correct to say therefore that like with many other things in West Africa, from a girls’ school to the first tertiary institution, first psychiatric hospital, etc, civil society activism started in Sierra Leone. However, in present day Sierra Leone, almost everything has a political colour and hardly is it based on what the politicians stand for; rather which part of the country they come from.
Politics and politicians hardly move away from our sight let alone our attention. If they do, it won’t be too far away or for too long. It would seem every breath of every man and woman in this country, especially lately, takes in politics and emits politics. Oxygen and carbon dioxide are endangered and the plants and human beings are in danger. And our politics seems to have a direct concomitance to our continued survival as a peaceful nation and peaceable people; and for some people, quite literally so too.
Ivan Lewis, the British Minister for Overseas Development who paid a 2-day official visit to Sierra Leone last week, appealed for good governance, accountability and good leadership which are the hallmarks of…well…good leadership. That is what takes away the partisanship in a people who are buried in the foolish notion that their open and sometimes confrontational support for one political party or another is where their survival lies and always will.
And good leadership does not apply to the government alone. To a larger extent it does but it also applies to the opposition. And even though the blood of everyone in this country seems to run politics and political, addressing our survival must not be seen as being at the behest of politicians nor at the expense of the nation. Here comes in the crucial role civil society should and must play. That is if they themselves do not end up being partisan politicians.
The demise of a nation is accelerated when its civil society becomes too partisan. Of recent, I have travelled to a few districts in the country especially in the last couple of months and have met with some civil society activists. Depending on which part of the country I was in, their pronouncements, statements and support or opposition for government largely depended on where I was. Their stance on national issues was largely tilted towards what in their view was in tandem with their political interest.
Even in Freetown certain civil society activists are activists for certain political parties. When this becomes justified not by suspicion but by fact, then it erodes the confidence of the public in that individual and their organisation and by extension their work. There is no doubt that some civil society organisations have served as recruitment ground in the past and present. But that in no way should serve as reason for an activist to show a political colour. It behoves these activists to hold onto the creed of the letter of their activism and not compromise even if for positions or promises of positions. They will get there when they should get there.
The reason the world community looks forward to the actions and statements of civil society groups is because of the impartiality they should exude. All the funding that comes for them is geared towards strengthening that impartiality. It is unfair therefore for these civil society groups to be getting these funds and dancing to the tune of one political party or another. If they are funded by politicians then they should not receive donor funds in whatever form, since that comes for ordinary Sierra Leoneans regardless of their party affinity.
That said, civil society groups should not be afraid of speaking out on issues of national import. Their conscience should be their guiding principle. Whatever is wrong, and regardless of who does it, should draw the same condemnation from civic organisations. If the opposition misbehaves in a way that affects governance, it should be denounced. And that pattern should be consistent in that if the governing party does the same the same rebuke should be directed at them.
When the opposition decries the government it is with a view to scoring political points. When an impartial civil society decries the government, or even the opposition, it is with a view to seeking the people’s welfare. Civil society must therefore rise up to the challenge to speak only what is in the interest of the masses. Except if by coincidence the opposition or government associates with it depending on who does what.
Civil society organisations should not be seen as following the bad example of some bad humanitarian organisations which, during our war, mushroomed all over the place and did very little humanitarian work for the ordinary people. They ended up getting more than those they claimed to be tending to.
This is probably where the civil society interface group, ENCISS, should double its efforts in trying to reign in on civil society groups. Those groups whose individual political considerations becloud their thinking should be beclouded by donors vis-à-vis funding. They should also encourage the research capacity of these civil society groups. Do they have a database on what they have been doing? What happens when someone wants to research on their activities apart from oral reference? Are most of them not just one-man shows?
Our civil society groups or their representatives who have been to other countries like for elections observation such as Ghana must have noticed the huge research unit their counterparts have. Talking about elections, the selection of these civil society groups to represent the country as election observers has received some mumbling lately. My investigations tell me that those civil society groups in the north of the country have not benefited from any such international observer assignment. While I am still finding out, if this is true, it requires some rethinking on the part of those who seed them. If not for anything, for the simple fact the nation’s wealth and other benefits, must be allowed to go round its four corners.
By Umaru Fofana